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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 February 2008, 10:13 GMT
EU free market 'relegation' fears
By Sean Curran
BBC Radio 4's Yesterday in Parliament

It has taken them four days of debate but at last MPs have found one area of EU policy they can all agree on.

John Hutton
John Hutton is 'sporting a pair of euro-intellectual spectacles'

Well, maybe not all of them, but most MPs agreed on Wednesday that the introduction of the single market had been "a good thing".

One or two suggested that it was about the only good thing to come out of the European Union in the past fifty years.

This lack of controversy and passion meant the Business Secretary, John Hutton, could use a fair proportion of his speech at the start of day four to have a pop at the Conservatives.

The normally mild-mannered Mr Hutton, who is currently sporting a pair of euro-intellectual spectacles, was taken to task by the Deputy Speaker, Sir Alan Haselhurt when he referred to the Tory benches as "that lot" and "these characters".

Mr Hutton told the Commons nearly 60% of UK trade was now with other member states and around three million jobs were linked to the export of goods and services to the EU.

Downgrading concern

He said UK business leaders had agreed that the Lisbon Treaty would deliver a more effective European Union.

Conservative MPs were angry that a commitment to free and undistorted competition was removed from the objectives of the European Union and in their view "relegated" to a protocol.

The blame for this apparent downgrading of competition has been put firmly at the feet of the French president Nicholas Sarkozy.

Nicolas Sarkozy
Mr Sarkozy is blamed by the Tories for downgrading the free market

Last June, he persuaded his fellow EU leaders to drop the principle of "free and undistorted competition" from Article 3 of the old constitutional treaty.

Instead the commitment was put in a protocol.

'Dogma'

Recently the world's media has focused on President Sarkozy's movie star life style and, of course, his wedding to the former model Carla Bruni.

Last summer, in public at least, he was more interested in models of the economic kind when he asked: "As an ideology, as a dogma, what has competition given Europe?"

It is unhelpful in the extreme that first of all we have this emergence of economic nationalism, not just in France, and that the British government has made a concession
Vince Cable
Lib Dem Treasury spokesman

In the Commons, the Tories argued that the British government should have used its veto to stop this happening.

John Hutton insisted that the protocol had the same legal effect as any part of the treaty and said there was "no basis in fact or law" for the claim that putting the commitment in a protocol relegated competition to the sidelines.

The business secretary said the treaty did not make any major changes to the legal basis of the single market but introduced a number of technical measures which he said could benefit UK workers, consumers and businesses.

"I fundamentally believe that this treaty can help us build a Europe ready for the 21st Century, focused on the issues that matter such as jobs, growth and open and competitive markets," said Mr Hutton.

'Damaging concession'

For the Conservatives, Philip Hammond accused ministers of a sell out "of truly historical significance" and said the British government had rolled over during the negotiations.

"Quite deliberately, this treaty - with the connivance of the British government - downgrades the objective of open and competitive single market from its place at the heart of the EU's agenda to an obscure protocol tacked on to the back of the treaty," Mr Hammond told MPs.

Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable suggested this was the one issue of controversy in this section of the treaty.

Mr Cable said: "It is unhelpful in the extreme that first of all we have this emergence of economic nationalism, not just in France, and that the British government has made a concession.

"It may be a symbolic concession but it is of a rather damaging kind."

A Conservative amendment "deploring" what it called the government's "failure" to block the relegation of competition to a protocol was defeated by 352 votes to 176, a government majority 176.

The government's motion approving its policy towards this section of Lisbon Treaty, was then approved by a majority of 159.

A Conservative amendment was defeated and a Government motion approving its policy on this part of the Lisbon Treaty was approved by a majority of 159 votes.



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